For the fourth time in seven years, a team of local volunteers will travel across the country next week on their own time and dime to lend helping hands to victims of natural disaster. Local volunteer Marsha Hoppe brought together 40 men and women for this year's relief effort, which departs for Henryville, Ind., on Sunday to clean up after an F3 tornado that laid waste to the small town in March. The group of adults and high school or college-age youth will spend Monday through Thursday restoring three homes and three barns on an alpaca and llama farm, then return on Friday.
Hoppe has been organizing philanthropic excursions through the National Relief Network in Greenville every two years since 2006; first to Chalmette, La., to help gut houses for the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, then to Parkersburg, Iowa, in 2008 after an F5 tornado tore through it, then to Nashville, Tenn., in 2010 to clean up after severe flooding. She said she always trusts NRN to send them wherever they should be.
"The animals need a place to stay, so we're going to be helping to rebuild a barn and maybe working on roofing and whatever was damaged in these homes. Wherever they put us. That's why we trust the National Relief Network, because they take complete care of us. They bus us, they feed us, they find us a place to stay," she said. "We're going to be staying in a church and showering at a YMCA."
Hoppe started recruiting volunteers in December 2011 and started fundraising in January. The trip's projected cost for food, shelter, materials and transportation amounted to about $17,000, which the volunteers have already raised through sponsorships and fundraisers. She said the biennial tradition developed from an eye-opening visit to a hurricane-ravaged Louisiana six years ago, an unforgettable learning experience that many volunteers saw as a call to serve.
"After we went to Katrina, that was so life-changing to see homes that had been flooded the year before, and we had to gut out everybody's personal belongings. It was so life-changing that one young man right now is going into emergency management because it completely changed his course of life. To see what it does for kids and adults, they come back with a whole new outlook on what they have and how thankful they are for what they have," she said. "You come back and you go, 'Wow, I have a home. Wow, I have belongings.' You can watch it on TV all you want, but the minute you pull into a town, you can't believe the reaction that you get when we see it firsthand, what a tornado has done."
Encouraged again by consistently strong community support and a blessing from the bishops of the Lutheran Anglican Roman Catholic community on Wednesday night, she felt certain the group was doing the work it was meant to do.
"When this came about, it was like, 'OK, let's see if we can get a group together,' and when 45 people signed up, we ended up with 40 going, then you go, 'Yup, we were supposed to do this.' And the fact that we raised this money, yes, we know," said Hoppe. "People are so generous, like 'Thank you for doing this, God bless you, we're praying for you.' This community is supportive of what we're doing, and that's what is amazing."
She said the volunteers will continue their local endeavors like raising money for the homeless shelter, staffing the soup kitchen, and gift wrapping for the Vietnam veterans, but she was more ambivalent about possible objectives for their next trip.
"We need to live though this one," she said.
Andrew Westrope can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 358-5693.